Throughout these months, public-health messaging was hobbled by two complementary and distorting convictions. The first was a strong preference for universal messaging rather than more targeted guidance, which brought us to effectively national shelter-in-place orders before most of the country had even tried social-distancing, mask-wearing, and a focus on the most vulnerable. This impulse is understandable, to some degree, since universal vigilance helped prevent spread to the most vulnerable, and since, in general higher vigilance has been useful in stemming the flow of the disease. But in some cases a more targeted approach would’ve been preferable — both more effective and more palatable. And it meant that rather than a slow ratcheting up of concern, beginning in January, the public was treated to a whiplash from “Just the flu” to “Stay home, perhaps for months.” As a result, we didn’t even try some of the moderate measures, like mask-wearing and the end of medium-size public gatherings, that have allowed Japan to basically defeat the disease without much pain at all. And as Zeynep Tufecki put it on Twitter, “when we conflate the highest risk and the lowest risk activities, we’re telling people it doesn’t matter what they do.”
The second was a lack of confidence in the public’s ability to process nuances and act responsibly, so that rather than be transparent about the limited protection offered by masks and the risks of supply problems, officials and journalists told the public they were useless. Similarly, rather than emphasizing that outdoor activity was basically safe, so long as you kept your distance from one another, we were told that for all but the most essential activities we should stay indoors — where we then entertained ourselves in part by shaming those selfish enough to walk through the local park or go to the beach. The most potent weapons in the public arsenal against the pandemic all require buy-in from the public, and this muddled and erratic messaging has already undermined the trust on which such buy-in is transacted. As Chris Hayes has suggested, the only real hope for states like Arizona, where ICUs are quickly approaching capacity, is universal mask wearing — but it’s almost impossible to imagine the state actually honoring a policy like that, at this point, were it even implemented. The messaging problem has not been as big a problem as the failure of federal leadership and guidance, of course. But it compounds it, depriving Americans of the tools they’d need to navigate the pandemic landscape on their own, having resolved that they should disregard messaging from the White House. For all the love showered on Anthony Fauci through the spring, the failure to push mask-wearing when it might have really mattered may ultimately prove the most catastrophic misstep of the whole American response.
The cost of all this failure is becoming terrifyingly clear, even as the country has begun a rapid and humiliating project of normalization.